Refried South

Patterson Hood embraced "the Southern thing" in his early thirties. He had ignored it as a teen in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

"I grew up more being into punk rock. I loved the Clash. I loved the Replacements. I was into songs with strong songwriting," says the singer and guitarist for the Drive-By Truckers, whose brilliant 2001 album Southern Rock Opera paid tribute to the original Dirty South. Hood even called himself a high school "pussy boy" in the lyrics. "As I've gotten older, I've been discovering all of that music that came out of the South, especially Skynyrd. I was really taken aback by what an amazing songwriter Ronnie Van Zant was. People were kind of turned off with what the band was associated with as opposed to what an amazing band they were."

He's not alone in his discovery. Kids who would otherwise be gushing over 50 Cent or Dashboard Confessional are dabbling in the bottleneck slide solos, honest lyricism, and drunken bar-brawl aesthetic that make the Southern rock canon so unique -- and such a joke to casual listeners, punk kids, and anyone who looks down at white trash.

But now the stigma that deflated the .38 Specials of the previous generation is fading. A new generation of musicians, music lovers, and eager-to-please hipsters has caught onto its thrilling "don't give a shit" attitude. The Allman Brothers, Outlaws, Marshall Tucker Band, the three-guitar thing ... from Kid Rock to Goin' South, it's all in vogue.

Folks are also sporting trucker hats, bell-bottom jeans, giant belt buckles, drugstore aviator shades, and open cans of Pabst. It goes beyond irony; it suggests something of an awakening, much like what happened with surf rock and rockabilly after Pulp Fiction hit nearly a decade ago, or when white radio DJs rediscovered doo-wop in the Seventies.

There's soul in them there songs where there ain't none elsewhere!

Musicians who catch on are finding themselves under a soft, warm spotlight. It certainly has carried the Drive-By Truckers far, to Hood's awkward surprise.

"I never really set out to think of us as a Southern rock band," he says from the Truckers' tour bus, somewhere in Colorado. Yet he was so taken aback by his fondness for Skynyrd that he and bandmate Mike Cooley spearheaded a six-year effort to record a strange, two-album tribute: obsessing on specific episodes, contemplating the politically and socially messed-up era Van Zant sang about, and, most oddly, creating a fictional band based on Skynyrd that also meets doom in a plane crash somewhere in Louisiana. Among the resulting Southern Rock Opera's strongest songs is "Let There Be Rock," which includes the joking (and, well, ironic) line "I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd/But I sure saw Molly Hatchet." The band had never really dipped into a three-guitar sound before the recording, but they still managed to re-create it startlingly well. Hood explains that the band recorded the album on the second floor of a Birmingham warehouse with no air conditioning in the middle of a heat wave. It was self-imposed brutality for a bunch of guys who thought they'd get nowhere anyway. "We never thought anyone would ever fucking hear it," he says. "It never really occurred to us."

But people did hear it, causing a critical buzz and further fueling the revival of once-brutalized Southern rock. Not that it was such a terrible fate. The notoriety earned the Truckers a major-label deal with Lost Highway, which gave them the chance to make a crystal-clear studio record for the first time in their history. Yet that was about the only advantage. The next album, the much subtler and varied Decoration Day -- a collection of songs written as marriages were crumbling, infighting was lingering, and the combination of following up Southern Rock Opera with nonstop touring was driving the band members nuts -- wasn't quite as trucker hat-friendly as the Lost Highway folks had hoped. "It's always easier to categorize something, which is what we've always kind of avoided," says Hood. "But I do think the label would have preferred us to make a followup that was more like that last record ... they probably wanted another Southern Rock Opera."

Even if it isn't bordering on a "Freebird" heart attack, Decoration Day does contain layers of moral ambiguity and guilt reminiscent of early Allman recordings, and with songs about brother-sister incest, family feuds, and drunken infidelity, it surely is Southern gothic. Hood says it was recorded on the fly in seven first takes and came in well under budget, which enabled the group to eventually buy it back from Lost Highway, put it out on the independent New West, and flourish anyway.

The tour bus, it turns out, is a brand-new luxury, the Truckers' first after playing more than 800 shows while traveling by van. Listeners out there care enough these days to lift their down-home colloquial tide.

While the new dawn of Southern rock isn't quite as straightforward as the Drive-By Truckers' story, the hues and shapes of other artists' work also reveal the cultural influences at play. Here's a sampling of recent albums:

Kings of Leon, Youth & Young Manhood (RCA): This Nashville quartet -- all in their teens and early twenties, blessed with the charming surname Followill, and raised by a rock and roll-loving Pentecostal minister -- have the pedigree to claim their home state's boogie-woogie tradition. Youth & Young Manhood is built on uncanny, down-and-dirty rhythm, an amalgam of country, R&B, and garage rock. It sounds like it was made for about fifty dollars, with the three brothers and their cousin bashing through a series of what you'd think are first or second takes -- "Wasted Time" sounds so wonderfully rough, you wonder if one of 'em will throw a guitar across the room in disgust.

Youth & Young Manhood's major strength and most inviting throwback element, however, comes from the mouth of vocalist Caleb Followill. Like his facial-haired white-boy forebears, Followill sounds like he's drinking or falling asleep. Or maybe he's just pissed and visceral, like Gregg Allman always seemed. Nevertheless, his understated mumbles and thick, extra-syllable-inducing drawl ("I done put a bullet to his hayyy-eed!") are perfect for songs like "Holy Roller Novocaine" and "Red Morning Light."

Brooks & Dunn, Red Dirt Road (Arista Nashville): No one can doubt the rustic leanings of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. They've been country superstars for years, churning out smiling hits and inviting folks like the late stock car racing hero Dale Earnhardt to appear in their videos.

But who knew, really, that they could just plain rock? Okay, so they keep their twang and lofty country-radio vocals intact, too, but the songs on Red Dirt Road are tough, at times unrelenting. The album even begins with a stuttering Stones riff, some barroom piano, a searing guitar solo, and a lyric about boys "doing what boys do" on "You Can't Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl." It's one of the better songs of the year, a surefire volley for the new Pabst-sipping intelligentsia.

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Christopher O'Connor